Faced with three state ballot initiatives targeting labor unions, public servants in Colorado — most notably firefighters and law enforcement personnel — are using their free time to work as community organizers against the measures.
Deputy sheriff Rick Reigenborn has worked in the Denver area for more than 16 years. He is a former SWAT team member and was on the scene during the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton.
The 44-year-old deputy says Amendment 47, a “right-to-work” initiative that would restrict way labor unions organize in Colorado, would ruin the negotiating ability for cops where he works.
“It’s important people know what we’re advocating for. It’s stuff that’s going to protect not just the firefighters and police officers, but also the citizens that we serve,” Reigenborn says, noting that the possibility of a “right-to-work” amendment has motivated him to get involved with Protect Colorado’s Future, a labor-backed coalition opposing the measure.
Reigenborn doesn’t have a union where he works, but he is involved with the Fraternal Order of Police, an employee organization that advocates on behalf of law enforcement officers.
At one point, when news broke a few years ago that individuals had been firing AK-47 rounds against police officers in Los Angeles, Reigenborn says the employee group lobbied the sheriff to allow deputies to carry high-powered rifles in their patrol vehicles.
Within a week officers were permitted to buy their own rifles to carry while on duty, and that’s just one example of how the fraternal order has affected law enforcement safety, according to Reigenborn.
Union negotiating power can also be to key to making sure firefighters get adequate safety equipment, especially in hard economic times when city or county budgets may be stretched thin.
Joel Heinemann, a Littleton firefighter who has appeared in television ads against Amendment 47, has been holding canvassing trainings and talking to various media outlets against the “right-to-work” measure.
“It would impact the voice we have as an organization in advocating for what we need to do our jobs,” Heinemann, president of the Littleton Firefighters Association, says. “Often times we’re the ones advocating for the equipment we need. When you put a hundred voices together it really makes a difference. I think it’s an attempt to fragment those voices.”
Two additional measures are also targeting unions this year.
Amendments 49 would restrict the way organized labor retains dues from state employees, while Amendment 54 would prohibit certain unions from giving to political campaigns.
“From a law enforcement prospective, why would you want to silence my voice?” Reigenborn says. “I stood down at the Democratic National Convention for a week. I pulled 57 hours of overtime in one week so you can have your First Amendment right to come down here and say whatever you want to say, but now I don’t have a right to make a political choice because of the nature of the work that I do?”
Heinemann, who was also on the scene as the Columbine tragedy was unfolding, claims that political contributions are considered a part of free speech for firefighters.
“One of the biggest issues that occurred during Columbine was radios. Really the system broke down,” Heinemann says. “It’s an issue that still exists, and it’s gonna have to be answered at a political level. If you take us out of that process then you remove us from being able to address that issue. I don’t know one firefighter who is supportive of this.”
Both are quick to point out that they are working against the three anti-union measures on their own time, and are in no way representing their government employers.
“We’re not terrorists,” says Reigenborn, responding to a quip by the opposition that literally linked union supporters to terrorists. “When there’s danger, when things are going bad, who do people call? When the bullets are flying and the flames are going up in the air we don’t run away from that stuff.”